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January 01, 2013

Law Program Helps Young Offenders Avoid Cycle of Violence and Jail


The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

In the world of young offenders, strong words can quickly lead to violence, turning a brief youth-detention stay into a lifetime cycle of incarceration. Law-school professors and their students are working with young offenders in Southern California to help them break this cycle through conflict mediation to solve their problems with others.

For two decades, Professors Floralynn Einesman and Linda Morton of California Western School of Law have run an advanced mediation course for law students—a successful program in which their law students mediate conflicts between juvenile detainees between the ages of 13 and 18 at two detention centers near San Diego. Believed to be the only one of its kind in the country, the program helps the teens learn to get along with each other to avoid going into isolation, being transferred to another facility or facing other problems, down the road.

The program, which recently earned regional recognition for its successes, including a conflict prevention award from the Center for Civic Mediation in Los Angeles, sends CWSL law students to the juvenile detention facilities to work directly with young offenders. Participants call the approach rewarding, and indicate that it often puts their communication and mediation skills to the test. 

At a time when a dirty look, an insult or a text message that’s gone viral push many young people toward violence—and talking and explaining their feelings is new to the young offenders, the program is becoming even more timely, according to Eiesman. She notes that promoting dialogue also represents a timely intervention. “This is not something they learned so easily when they were younger, and they certainly were not encouraged to say [how they feel].”

Professors Einesman and Morton started the program in 1994, to mediate problems between residents, ages 13-18 at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility and the Girls’ Rehabilitation Facility. Once a week for two hours, the CWSL students meet with the juveniles at their facility to mediate problems the juveniles had with others that week. While mediating, the law students are mentored by an adjunct professor who watches them, intervenes when necessary, and provides feedback to the law students immediately following each mediation session. 

Most of the problems among the detainees are related to the tensions that arise from living in very close quarters with others, according to Professor Einesman. Part of the mediation is to help model acceptable behavior for the teenagers when conflicts occur. “They stress that you don’t settle disagreements by fighting, hitting…or killing,” she says. “You have rules. You don’t interrupt, and you don’t cuss at each other.”

She points out that it is often difficult for the juveniles to express their emotions. “Saying they feel frustrated and anxious does not come naturally to them, they just know that they’re about to explode,” Einesman says. She is currently on sabbatical to survey the 450 CWSL law students who have taken the Advanced Mediation Program course to see how it has influenced their law careers. 

“We teach our law students active listening, negotiating skills, ways to summarize, and ways to listen and hear differently,” she says. “Invariably, almost everyone tells us it has changed the way they listen and talk to people, in both their professional and personal lives.”

Traditional legal education focuses on teaching law students how to analyze and how to speak, according to Morton. “Our focus,” she says, “is to teach students, as well as the detainees, how to listen, with all their senses.” Empathy, tolerance, understanding of cultures, collaboration, self-awareness, leadership and acceptance are all skills that traditional legal education overlooks, she points out. “As we teach our students these skills, the benefit of our program is that it gives our students a forum to not just  practice these skills themselves, but to teach them to others.”

Einesman explains that when she went to law school, there were virtually no courses in negotiation or mediation, and no courses in listening or counseling skills. “It was all geared to becoming a litigator,” she says. This program seems to serve as excellent training for negotiation: “Our mediation program is designed to train a new breed of lawyer.”

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